Obama's Margin of Victory: The Media
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It was the closest nomination contest in a generation, with just one-tenth of a percentage point — 41,622 votes out of more than 35 million cast — separating Barack Obama from Hillary Clinton when the Democratic primaries ended in June. Obama’s margin among elected delegates was almost as thin, just 51 to 48 percent.
But Barack Obama had a crucial advantage over his rivals this year: the support of the national media, especially the three broadcast networks. At every step of his national political career, network reporters showered the Illinois Senator with glowing media coverage, building him up as a political celebrity and exhibiting little interest in investigating his past associations or exploring the controversies that could have threatened his campaign.
These are the key findings of the Media Research Center’s exhaustive analysis of ABC, CBS and NBC evening news coverage of Barack Obama — every story, every soundbite, every mention — from his first appearance on a network broadcast in May 2000 through the end of the Democratic primaries in June 2008, a total of 1,365 stories. MRC analysts found that the networks’ coverage — particularly prior to the formal start of Obama’s presidential campaign — bordered on giddy celebration of a political "rock star" rather than objective newsgathering.
# The three broadcast networks treated Obama to nearly seven times more good press than bad — 462 positive stories (34% of the total), compared with only 70 stories (just 5%) that were critical.
# NBC Nightly News was the most lopsided, with 179 pro-Obama reports (37%), more than ten times the number of anti-Obama stories (17, or 3%). The CBS Evening News was nearly as skewed, with 156 stories spun in favor of Obama (38%), compared to a mere 21 anti-Obama reports (5%). ABC’s World News was the least slanted, but still tilted roughly four-to-one in Obama’s favor (127 stories to 32, or 27% to 7%).
# Barack Obama received his best press when it mattered most, as he debuted on the national scene. All of the networks lavished him with praise when he was keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic Convention, and did not produce a single negative story about Obama (out of 81 total reports) prior to the start of his presidential campaign in early 2007.
# The networks downplayed or ignored major Obama gaffes and scandals. Obama’s relationship with convicted influence peddler Tony Rezko was the subject of only two full reports (one each on ABC and NBC) and mentioned in just 15 other stories. CBS and NBC also initially downplayed controversial statements from Obama’s longtime pastor Jeremiah Wright, but heavily praised Obama’s March 18 speech on race relations.
# While Obama’s worst media coverage came during the weeks leading up to the Pennsylvania primary on April 22, even then the networks offered two positive stories for every one that carried a negative spin (21% to 9%). Obama’s best press of the year came after he won the North Carolina primary on May 6 — after that, 43 percent of stories were favorable to Obama, compared to just one percent that were critical.
# The networks minimized Obama’s liberal ideology, only referring to him as a "liberal" 14 times in four years. In contrast, reporters found twice as many occasions (29) to refer to Obama as either a "rock star," "rising star" or "superstar" during the same period.
# In covering the campaign, network reporters highlighted voters who offered favorable opinions about Obama. Of 147 average citizens who expressed an on-camera opinion about Obama, 114 (78%) were pro-Obama, compared to just 28 (19%) that had a negative view, with the remaining five offering a mixed opinion.
Perhaps if he had faced serious journalistic scrutiny instead of media cheerleading, Barack Obama might still have won his party’s nomination. But the tremendously positive coverage that the networks bestowed upon his campaign was of incalculable value. The early celebrity coverage helped make Obama a nationally-known figure with a near-perfect media image. The protectiveness that reporters showed during the early primaries made it difficult for his rivals to effectively criticize him. And when it came to controversies such as the Wright affair, network reporters acted more as defenders than as journalists in an adversarial relationship. If the media did not actually win the Democratic nomination for Barack Obama, they surely made it a whole lot easier.